Lee MacPhail: Wrong Executive for the Hall of Fame

Later this month, former American League president Lee MacPhail will become the first modern major league executive inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He joins three past Commissioners, several league presidents, owners, general managers -- and his father, Larry MacPhail, who introduced night baseball to the majors in 1935. For MacPhail, his induction is baseball’s ultimate retirement gift.

This gift was bestowed upon MacPhail by the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee, which is empowered to honor one executive, manager or umpire each year. But while the Veterans’ Committee choice is understandable, it wasn’t justified. Among modern baseball executives, one name stands alone as the most deserving candidate.

The Veterans Committee is a group of long-term – loooooong-term – baseball insiders At present, the Hall of Famers are Yogi Berra, Stan Musial, Pee Wee Reese, Ted Williams and the just-added Juan Marichal. Media representatives include Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, former Red Sox broadcaster Ken Coleman, Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Tribune, former New York baseball writer Leonard Koppett, and Allen Lewis of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The other insiders are long-retired executives Buzzie Bavasi, Joe L. Brown and Hank Peters; former NL president Bill White; and Negro Leaguer/legend Buck O’Neil. Most were active when MacPhail’s father retired from baseball in 1947.

According to Veterans Committee rules, the Committee evaluates prospective Hall of Famers on their “record, ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the game.” MacPhail’s qualifications start with his 10 years at the helm of the American League. He also held front-office positions with the Yankees and Orioles; served under William D. Eckert in the Commissioner’s Office; and closed out his career as chairman of management’s Player Relations Committee. MacPhail was often mentioned as a potential Commissioner, and may have turned down the job before it went to Peter Ueberroth. Everyone on the Veterans Committee knows MacPhail; most have been saying and hearing nice things about him for more than 30 years.

But what did MacPhail actually do?. Nothing noteworthy as a club executive. As AL president, his moment in the sun involved upholding Kansas City’s protest of the George Brett “pine tar” game. As a labor negotiator, he helped settle the 1981 and 1985 strikes, but his subsequent memo to the owners urging fiscal restraint laid the foundation for three years of collusion. Among eligible executives, managers and umpires, I’d induct Bowie Kuhn, Dick Williams or Doug Harvey before MacPhail.

And before inducting any of them, I’d usher into the Hall of Fame the man who has had the greatest effect on Organized Baseball than any executive since Branch Rickey: the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association from 1966 through 1982, Marvin Miller.

During Miller’s tenure at the MLBPA, his victories at the bargaining table gave players the right to hire agents to negotiate their salaries; authorized them to bring grievances before an impartial arbitrator; allowed 10-year veterans who had been with their club for at least five years to veto proposed trades; and established a system of salary arbitration available to all but the most junior players. An MLBPA-sponsored arbitration eliminated the perpetual reserve clause which had bound the players for almost a century. As a result, the players’ average salary rose from an estimated $19,000 in 1967 to $241,497 when Miller retired in 1982.

Despite their screams, the owners also benefited from Miller’s tenure. Franchise values rose. Attendance boomed. Free agency brought a new era of competitive equality, with 13 different clubs winning the World Series from1978 to 1992. No one foresaw such changes when Miller was hired – least of all the players. In 1966 the MLBPA was already ten years old, but had been so docile that the owners paid its operating expenses, in violation of federal labor law. Its first head, J. Norman Lewis, refused to use the word "union" to describe the Association, even telling Congress that his members wouldn't consider jumping to a new major league for higher salaries. Lewis’s successor was no better. As the owners began experimenting with pay TV, Judge Robert Cannon told his membership not to worry: “When the issue arises, we’re sure that the owners will treat the players’ interests fairly."

The players themselves thought the same way. They testified before Congress that the reserve clause was essential to MLB’s survival. When Miller was first offered his job, player spokesman Robin Roberts planned to hire Richard M. Nixon as the MLBPA’s new general counsel! Fifteen years later, Rudy May summed up the players’ attitude: “Don’t the owners know that there’s going to be a whole generation of ballplayers’ sons who grow up with the middle name Marvin?”

The issue’s not whether Miller will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but when. He’ll be elected as soon as the Reggie Jackson/Tom Seaver generation controls the Veterans’ Committee. Long before then, while the 81-year-old Miller can still enjoy the honor and the irony, the Committee should recognize him as baseball’s most influential figure of the postwar era.

Copyright © 1998 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the July 1998 issue of Boston Baseball.

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